Archives for category: Picture Books

Voice as Character

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In many ways voice comes down to character whether we are referring to characters in a story or the author/narrator telling the story. Voice is communication and the desire for connection between people. This connection may be face-to-face or leap over years and miles through reading.

A character’s dialogue and action are guided by back-story, but primarily by her immediate wants or needs of the other characters. If a character has no needs or wants why is she in the story? So…what do we, as writers, want or need from our readers? What does our narrator’s voice reveal about us?

As writers and storytellers our primary “want” is capturing and keeping the attention and emotions of our audience. Even if our desire is to do something supposedly more important than keeping their attention such as teaching them something we need answer this reality: How can you teach or inform anyone unless you have their attention? The vital next question is: What are we doing to achieve that “want” of keeping their attention? Volume? Tone? Attitude?

If we encounter resistance to achieving our want in life, we eventually learn that the best tactic is to try another approach. Then another and another. As picture book writers we want the same toolbox of approaches. And, to always being aware of what our storyteller’s voice reveals about us. Warm? Comical? Demanding? Bossy? Scolding? Condescending? Playful? Challenging? Most of all, is it a voice eager to share an experience with an equal?

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Illustrators: Responding to the Text

Kevan Atteberry

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attentions? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

Kevan

Obviously, all of those things play a part in choosing to accept a manuscript, with a light edge given to Plot and Tone.  The story has to engage me. It must be fun, hopefully funny, and when you finish it feels complete. (And as a note, if the tone is odd or bordering on irreverent, I jump at the opportunity. But even above the elements you list, I think a strong, likable character is the thing that most often says, “Do this!” Though I love most genres of picture books, the ones that stand out for me, the kind I like to illustrate are character-driven. I want characters that endear themselves to the reader. Characters with strong established personalities in the text alone, but that I get to flesh out visually. Maybe add my own traits or peculiarities to.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette? For example, your illustrations in FRANKIE STEIN, LOTS OF LETTERS, and BOOGIE MONSTER are at once related, yet still different from one another.

Kevan

To be honest, when I am offered a book, the art director or editor has chosen me because of a style they have already seen of mine. In discussion with them, they will reference a sample illustration and let me know that that is why they’ve asked me to illustrate the book. I’ve had editors and art directors make suggestions on both line AND palette. In TICKLE MONSTER, we changed the palette a couple of times because the publisher had a particular vision. I did so reluctantly, but in the end I was certain that they had made the right choice. I LOVE the palette in TICKLE MONSTER and BOOGIE MONSTER—as do others—and give all the credit to the publisher for that decision.

#3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you?

Kevan

If you are talking about a picture book text by anyone, hmmm…let me think. The first book that comes to mind in Mercer Mayer’s, ONE MONSTER AFTER ANOTHER. A charming story with lovely, fun illustrations and characters. There is no way I could improve on what Mayer did, but I could have the best time creating my own spin on it. GEORGE by Robert Bright would be fun, too. A sweet story with an endearing protagonist. Jose Arugeo’s LOOK WHAT I CAN DO is a wonderful illustration-dependent picture book that would be hilarious to interpret.  The text is nearly non-existent so I don’t know if this is a good example of what about the text excites me. It really is just the inanity of the two characters and their one-upmanship. And then I’d really love to illustrate a collection. Where the illustrations weren’t linear but rather vignettes. Each illustration standing on it’s own, not linked to the previous or the next illustration—like a collection of nursery rhymes, i.e. Mother Goose.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?

Kevan

Probably that ‘I know what I’m doing.’ And to trust me. I will not ruin their story. I will bring it to life and I will treat it with great respect. But the illustration part is mine. It is my half of our collaboration. I am open to any illustration note that is imperative to the story otherwise it is all up to me. And the editor. I don’t want that to sound standoff-ish, I just want to feel comfortable—have them feel comfortable with me—interpreting their story visually.

 THANK YOU, Kevan, for sharing your thoughts. You can find out more about Kevan’s books and illustrations at:  www.oddisgood.com

Illus. by Kevan Atteberry

Picture Books Referenced Above

FRANKIE STEIN by Lola M. Schaefer. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Marshall Cavendish, 2009.

LOTS OF LETTERS by Tish Rabe. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Innovative Kids, 2006.

TICKLE MONSTER by Josie Bissett.  Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Compendium, 2008.

One Picture Book Text: Two Interpretations

 When Richard Jesse Watson mentioned FERDINAND THE BULL as the picture book text he’d most like to illustrate I hurried to my bookshelves. I have loved FERDINAND since childhood, and some 40 years ago found a German edition illustrated by Werner Klemke.

While we’ve grown used to folktales being illustrated or interpreted by a wide range of artists, it is unusual for a modern text to be re-illustrated. Our initial reaction often resembles our response to the remake of a beloved film. “What have they done?” But exploring such examples can be valuable to those of us who write but not illustrate. It helps us understand how two different artists can experience and envision our words and story.

Though this German edition is out of print, we can see all the illustrations thanks to the Internet. Go to YouTube: Ferdinand der Stier.wmv – YouTube.

 <www.youtube.cm/watch?v=G8vddifa1RM>

Enjoy!

Picture Books Discussed

Leaf, Munro. FERDINAND THE BULL. Illus. by Robert Lawson. Viking, 1938.

Leaf, Munro FERDINAND DER STIER. Illus. by Werner Klemke.  Transl. by Fritz Guttinger. Parabel Verlag, Date Unknown.

Picture Books and the Short, Short Story

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In the early 1970s Arnold Lobel and James Marshall (who became good friends) each started what became a series of short story collections about two good friends. FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS* and GEORGE AND MARTHA brought a new possibility to the picture book. Rather than a single narrative arc based in plot, one could also focus on characters and relationship in a series of encounters. Another way to look at short stories, be they by Chekhov, Cheever, Marshall or Kvasnosky, is that they are snapshots of human behavior. In the end, every novel and every life is an album of such snapshots.

Within the term short story there are a variety of subgenres and fluid definitions of each. There is no rule that one must not blend these categories, but it is valuable to know their differences and possibilities.

 Flash Fiction

 Primary characteristics are extreme brevity, fast pacing from one plot point to the next, and less developed characters. Many sight Aesop as the first flash fiction writer.

Eve Feldman’s BILLY & MILLY, SHORT & SILLY brings extreme flash fiction to picture books. These 13 stories are each told in only three or four words. For example:

 Stoops. Hoops. Scoops. Oops.

 Stoops” establishes setting (front steps). “Hoops” establishes activity (shooting hoops). “Scoops” establishes second character’s activity (eating an ice cream cone). And “Oops” proclaims conflict (rogue basketball ruins the ice cream cone). Tuesday Morning’s illustrations are vital to the reader’s grasp of these very mini stories because they clarify setting, characters and action.

Another of Feldman’s stories manages to establish setting, character, conflict and resolution in only four words.

Bunk. Trunk. Skunk. Clunk.

 Whether you’re writing picture book short stories or a single story picture book try a draft using only 5 to 10 words. You’ve got nothing to lose, and it might help you find the primary beats of your story.

Illus. by Tuesday Mourning BILLY & MILLY

Next spring brings another example of cracker-jack flash fiction in picture book form. Jeff Mack’s forthcoming FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES is a playful delight.  I read the F & Gs at my local bookstore, and can’t wait to by my copy come March.

Coming next: The “sketch story”, the “vignette”, plus George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, and Bird & Birdie.

*Because FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS is an early reader I will not be discussing it these two posts. For a look at Frog and Toad and as they compare and contrast with George and Martha please visit my biography on Lobel entitled ARNOLD LOBEL (Twayne, 1989).

Picture Books Discussed

BILLY AND MILLY: SHORT AND SILLY by Eve B. Feldman. Illus. by Tuesday Mourning. Putnam, 2009

BIRDY AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.

FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES by Jeff Mack. March 2012

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

 In theater and film stories are typically performed inside four walls. The fourth wall is the front of the stage facing the audience. While it is not a real wall, audience and actors agree to treat it as a wall with a very large peephole. Audience and characters do not acknowledge that the other exists. It is a vital part of the suspension of disbelief. Well, most of the time. The same is true for picture books. Again, most of the time.

The movie FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF is one of the best-known examples of a character acknowledging and speaking directly to the audience. Many interactive or concept picture books do this by asking questions like “Can you find?” or “Whose feet are these?”  A few picture books break the fourth wall to an even greater extent by having the reader actually become part of the story. Think of it as THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO in reverse!

Michaela Muntean’s DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK views the reader as the second character in the story. The reader becomes the antagonist by simply opening the book and turning the page. We (the reader) don’t mean to cause trouble, we’re just curious to follow the story. Who can’t relate to innocent curiosity getting us into trouble?

 THE PURPLE KANGAROO by clever Michael Ian Black not only makes the reader a part of the story. It makes the reader the butt of the joke.

The book that first brought Don and Audrey Wood to everyone’s attention puts yet another spin on breaking the fourth wall. THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY, AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR gives the reader the role of a concerned observer speaking from the audience. We do what every audience member wishes he could do, warn the characters in the story.

Why not take a playful chance, and see if you can make your reader an active part of your next manuscript.

P.S. For an interesting look at other forms of metafiction in picture books visit Philip Nel’s:

“Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide – YouTube”

 Books Discussed

 DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK by Michaela Muntean. Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY, AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR by Don & Audrey Wood. Illus. by Don Wood. Child’s Play 1984.

THE PURPLE KANGAROO by Michael Ian Black. Illus. by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

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“The journalist tries to give you the facts. The narrative writer tries not to. Part of telling a story well is keeping information back and letting it escape when the time is right.”  Nancy Willard in Telling Time

Releasing information at the “right time” is an essential part of storytelling for all ages. Even when characters discover the perfect solution or experience an epiphany, the reader does NOT want to be told. The reader, like the character, wants to experience the discovery.

Two picture books published over 25 years apart make excellent use of delay and discovery. Both do so in such natural and quiet ways that readers may not even realize the delay. However, rewriting either with a bland and didactic voice demonstrates how much there is to lose by not waiting for the “right time.”

In Julia Donaldson’s wonderful WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD timing becomes everything. We are introduced to the farm animals and all their sounds. This information may seem benign, but he becomes vital to the finale. Readers also learn that Ladybug never says a word. That is, until she hears two robbers plan to steal the prize cow. When Ladybug speaks it is to report the robbers’ plan aloud, but she whispers “her plan into every ear.” This builds both hope and suspense.

Both of these emotions would be dashed, not to mention intrigue, if Donaldson had her Ladybug proclaim her plan aloud. “You will all imitate one another which will confuse the robbers.” Once the reader knows what’s going to happen there’s little reason to continue. There is nothing left to experience.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Felicia Bond’s THE HALLOWEEN PLAY might have become a didactic bore. Bond identifies her main character, Roger, but at the same time begins her narrative with the equivalent of a wide movie shot. This establishes that Roger is very much part of a group. Once the play begins Roger waits back stage for his cue. When that cue arrives the reader witnesses Roger’s appearance on stage as the giant pumpkin around which his classmates sing and dance.

It is a moment of pure joy for both Roger and the reader. “Before he went to bed that night, Roger’s father took a picture of him (as the pumpkin). But Roger didn’t need a picture to remember.” And, neither does the reader because the joy was experienced.

In contrast, feel the joy and inclusion evaporate if the narrative began with a close-up of Roger.

It was three days before Halloween, and Roger’s class was giving a play in honor of the event. Every day the class practiced, but Roger wasn’t very good. His classmates laughed and rolled their eyes. “Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “We’ll find something you can do.”

Farewell curiosity, joy, and inclusion.

As we can see through experience the difference between revealing information and reveal that same information at THE right time is as vital as Mark Twain’s comparison of the word and THE right word—lightning bug to lighting.

 Picture Books Discussed

 THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

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In PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION Sam Smiley explores three vital elements in revealing a story. The first, exposition or back-story, is more important and useful in plays and novels than brief picture books. However, the second and third, planting and pointing have much to offer the picture book writer.

“Planting”

Smiley explores eight forms of planting, but to simplify we’ll say planting is an item of information that turns out to be significant later in the story.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza includes a plant that’s sly as a fox. Or should we say pig? When a pig knocks on Fox’s door, Fox declares “My lucky day!” Pig attempts to stall his demise by suggesting a bath, getting fattened up, and tenderized with a massage. After Fox collapses from exhaustion from all his related chores Pig runs home declaring, “This must be my lucky day!”  Lucky? Not so fast. Kasza’s clever twist of an ending makes perfect sense thanks to her plant. Pig schemed the entire day. Pig made his lucky day by creating the situation. Next up, Wolf.

Kevin Henkes’ deliciously distilled SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK includes a line that is at once planting and pointing.

“If I had two, I’d give you one,” said Sheila Rae…” as she balances on stool, pillows, and books to keep her candy out of reach.

The fall of the arrogant occurs on the next page when Sheila Rae literary falls to the floor and her peppermint stick breaks in half. She is now forced to keep her to keep her promise. “If I had two” serves as a plant and gives reason for the sharing at the conclusion. It also (with Sheila Rae perched so high) serves as pointer that makes the reader hope for a case of prophecy fulfilled.

 “Pointing”

 Where a “plant” makes the reader think back through the story, a “pointer” sparks the reader to look ahead. It whispers something of interest and related is coming ahead. In other words, anticipation and suspense.

Examples of “pointing” can be found through a manuscript. Marie Bradby’s third and fourth sentence in MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE is a pointer that immediately creates anticipation of an answer.

My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

Pointers appear much later in SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. But they still pull the audience forward with concern and anticipation. After Little Goose is chastised for waking the farmer with a story about a giant sky fox eating the moon:

Little Goose waddled away

   With her head hanging low for shame.

Up the lane

Across the meadow

Back to the pond

With her head hanging low for shame

And she never once looked at the sky.

Preston’s emphasis on not looking up sets the stage for something Little Goose will miss seeing. After “not looking up” ends badly, Little Goose heads home with her head held back and never taking her eye off the moon. Once again, such an absolute can only bring a problem, and the reader senses it coming. Little Goose doesn’t see the Fox till he’s caught her.

Plants and Pointers serve the reader like a classic English butler—indispensable, but rarely noticed. Let’s write like a butler’s butler!

 Books Discussed

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza. Scholastic, 2003.

PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION by Sam Smiley. Prentice-Hall, 1971.

SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2001.

SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1974.

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

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 The second stage of the vital tease is making the audience curious, concerned or intrigued within the first one or two spreads. If we don’t, why would they continue? In other words, cut to the chase, the action! Thus our opening needs to quickly set up the chase.

Jill Kalz grabs in audience in the first sentence of GALEN’S CAMERA.

Galen has three eyes—two in his head and one in his hands.

In order to find out what Kalz means by a “third eye in his hands” we eagerly continue ready.

Virginia Lee Burton’s opening text for MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL may be a bit long by today’s standards, but he still establishes the primary characters and their dilemma on the first page:

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,

a beautiful red steam shovel.

Her name was Mary Anne.

Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne.

He always said that she could dig as much in a day

as a hundred men could dig in a week,

but he had never been quite sure

that this was true.

Burton, as storyteller, has tossed down the gauntlet of intrigue, and we must keep reading to find out if Mike Mulligan’s claim is true.

 HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz begins with a bold statement that immediately makes the audience ask, “Can this possibly be true?”

My Aunt Essie used to be a Queen. I knew it the day she moved in. The first ting Aunt Essie unpacked was a big picture of a man with a moustache and a sash across his chest. A King if I ever saw one.

Engaging beginnings may also be more subtle. Marie Bradby’s opening to MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE simple states facts that seem incongruous to the modern audience.

Before light—while the stars still twinkle—Pap, my brother John, and I leave our cabin and take the main road out of town, headed for work.

 The road hugs the ridge between the Kanawha River and the mountain. We travel it by lantern. My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

As readers we are immediately filled with questions that make us continue reading. Why are children going to work predawn? Why are they working at all? No breakfast? And, what could a boy find more important than food?

The need for immediately teasing or engaging the audience is equally important in nonfiction picture books. The first paragraph of BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker describes a world so unusual and beautiful, we can’t help but read how in hopes it really is true.

Being inside one of Grandma Prisbrey’s houses was like being inside a rainbow or a kaleidoscope or a jewel. The walls sparkled in sunlight, and in lamplight they glowed.

My own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY would have come a-cropper if I had placed the final, summarizing statement at the beginning. Instead, I began with a seemingly idiotic statement. Then with the turn of the page proved that it was true.

Pink is for crow…

Sparking interest, curiosity, and concern at the very beginning of our nonfiction picture books engages the audience is a path of discovery. When anyone discovers something the information is learned, is owned. As we all know, tossing out information with a wagging tongue and finger finds only closed eyes and ears. Before we submit a picture book manuscript it is both wise and humbling to see if we are merely expecting our readers’ attention, or if we have actually written in a way that demands it.

 Books Discussed

BOTTLE HOUSES by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2004.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

HER MAJESTY, AUNT ESSIE by Amy Schwartz. Bradbury, 1984.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

Nitwits, Noodles and Pumpkins

Most stories for children feature a protagonist who is involved in solving his own dilemma. This makes the story more satisfying because we typically assume the role of the main character and enjoy the sense of achievement. Mouse, for example, in WHOSE MOUSE ARE YOU takes action. Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel succeed first by taking action and then by shifting perspective.

Noodlehead stories provide a similar sense of achievement for the reader, but in a very different way. Jan Thomas’ new PUMPKIN TROUBLE provides a wonderful hoot of an example. Duck, Cow and Mouse are all noodleheads. Duck falls into his carved out pumpkin. Runs for help. Duck and Mouse assume it is the pumpkin monster. Duck hears their screams and also begins to run from the monster (not realizing he is the supposed monster). The flight continues till Duck (unable to see with the pumpkin over his head) crashes into the side of the barn.

Cheers all around. All three are grateful for escaping the monster, and Duck gets credit for destroying the monster he never knew he was. The reader’s sense of achievement comes from knowing more that the characters. Noodlehead characters offer the child the opportunity to celebrate his developing sense of logic and reason. The chance to laugh is thick icing on the cake.

Picture Books Discussed

PUMPKIN TROUBLE by Jan Thomas. Harper, 2011.

Go!

“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

 As in childhood most of us tend to approach games and new endeavors with “Get ready. Get set. Go!”  But when it comes to writing “getting ready” and “getting set” can easily become a quagmire of avoidance that brings us to a stop.

 Just Go!

“One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” Picasso

Write. Doodle with words and ideas. Write without clinging to previous ideas. Write to discover what the writing reveals. Write without fearing a finish line. Write with the playful flow of Bidemmi in Vera Williams’ CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS. How many stories can grow from a single cherry pit? More and more and more and more.

 

 And Keep Going…

At the “Go!” stage of writing picture books there are no mistakes. Surprises and frustrations, yes. But these offer more opportunities. REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss shares this truth as a picture book. The class assignment is to draw a picture of the jungle. As she draws the sun Regina’s crayon slips. It’s ruined! Not true. Her ability to keep going, to keep imagining allows her to created something unique. Everyone else draws the jungle in daylight. Regina’s ruined sun becomes the perfect moon for her distinctive picture of the jungle at night.

Illus. by Marissa Moss

Just like Aesop’s tortoise wins the race through ongoing action, picture books are created in the “Go!” of writing.

 Books Discussed

CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS by Vera Williams. Greenwillow, 1986.

REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss. Houghton, 1990.